The more I research into food, the more blurred I find the line between what is “good” vs “bad” for us. So much of what is truth in food relies not only upon the food itself, but also on its source, extraction and preparation methods – and, of course, whether or not that thing is what your mind or body needs at the time.
For example, spices are often antioxidant rich and good for us in small doses. Aside from adding a certain deliciousness to sweet and savoury dishes in pinch-sized servings, nutmeg  promises many and varied health benefits, including use as an antibacterial agent, digestive aid, acne cure and aphrodisiac! In large quantities, however, it can cause hallucinations, allergic skin reactions, miscarriage and even death. Ouch!
Below I have listed a few examples of commonly maligned substances that may not be so bad – depending on quantity, type and context.
Coffee [2,3,4]. The caffeine in coffee works by blocking adenosine receptors (adenosine is a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep). Regular caffeine use is shown to decrease the body’s receptors for norepinephrine (a hormone/neurotransmitter similar to adrenaline) and seratonin (an important ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter). Although the side effects associated with this highly addictive substance include insomnia, adrenal exhaustion, fatigue, headaches, diminished nutrient stores (esp. B and C vitamins), depression, mood swings, anxiety and more, many of us just can’t survive without our daily dose.
There are upsides to this addiction. Caffeine can cure headaches and migraines, temporarily enhance memory, concentration and mood, and it can improve the speed in which some tasks are achieved, so long as they are simple and repetitive. Research from Harvard Medical School also points to coffee as having beneficial effects in relation to blood pressure, cancer, cholesterol regulation, diabetes and Parkinson’s Disease (for men only – sorry, ladies).
Black pepper . I know of a number of people who won’t take any pepper with their food because of its reputation as a stomach irritant. Maybe this is true of black pepper when taken in doses of more than a few grinds at a time; many spices do have associated toxicities/negative side effects when ingested at high levels.
Black pepper contains nutrients such as iron, manganese, potassium, calcium, zinc, magnesium, flavonoids, B-vitamins, and vitamins A and C. It possesses a number of healthful advantages, including use as a cure for flatulence, and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also purported to improve digestion.
Fat [6,7,8,9]. Not all fats are created equal. The health or otherwise of a fat depends on the type and quantity we consume. For instance, until recent years, coconut oil was given a universally bad rap. While hydrogenated coconut oil is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, virgin coconut oil is an effective antifungal and antibacterial agent that can treat a litany of illnesses, including asthma, bowel problems, liver disease, kidney stones, skin complaints and typhoid. As a medium chain fatty acid, coconut is effective in addressing weight/obesity issues by increasing the metabolic rate.
Polyunsaturated fats were once considered the darlings of diet. Though we do need a certain amount of essential fatty acids (the omegas!) in our diets, consuming an excess of the highly volatile polyunsaturated fats can contribute to “…increased cancer and heart disease; immune system dysfunction; damage to the liver, reproductive organs and lungs; digestive disorders; depressed learning ability; impaired growth; and weight gain” .
Dr Mercola and Nutritionist Cyndi O’Meara have both reported on the importance of saturated fats and cholesterol in recent years, and contrary to modern medical opinion. Saturated fats boost immunity, improve mood and have protective functions in the body (including heart, liver and cellular health). Hydrogenated oils and trans-fats are the big ones to avoid and, scarily, these are often present in heart-ticked products – such as margarine, which has effectively been plasticised.
All this said, I am fairly sure that eating an abundance of any type of fat at the expense of other nutrients is not a great idea. Some people can tolerate (or even need) a greater proportion of fats in their diets than others, while some find fats difficult to digest full stop.
Nicotine [10,11]. I’m including nicotine here because, although it’s not a food item, the world is still full of first- and second-hand smokers. I am sure that most of us have been indoctrinated with the dangers of smoking (like exposure to thousands of harmful chemicals and carcinogens!), and nicotine is an intrinsic part of that delivery mechanism. Nicotine is incredibly addictive – but did you know that it also builds blood vessels and is linked to a decrease in Alzheimer’s disease? It may also form a part of future treatments for diabetes, depression, schizophrenia and dementia.
Please don’t take this as an endorsement of smoking or nicotine products, because it isn’t. Although nicotine may have some therapeutic benefits, it comes with a swathe of other potential health issues – like breathing difficulties, skin irritation, dizziness, chest tightness, nausea, stomach pain, blurred vision, irritability, sleep disturbance, insulin resistance, and more.
When we look at our diets holistically, I have no doubt that there are many healthful and non-addictive ways for us to gain the purported health benefits of nicotine – and coffee too, for that matter.
I believe that the ages-old proverb of “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” absolutely holds true, and there is at least some truth in the adage, “everything in moderation”. What is detrimental for you may be beneficial for someone else, or it could be right for you right now. I am learning that there is no definitive right or wrong, and we eat for so many reasons other than base nutrition. Your foodly philosophy is a deeply individual balancing act.
I do know that you will gain more value and satisfaction from your food if you eat mindfully. Eat with happy intent and knowledge of where your every bite has come from. Eat with awareness of how you feel during and after eating each food, why you eat the way you do, and how each bite affects your actions and moods. Take personal responsibility for your wellbeing, making conscious choices about your consumption and habits, and enjoy the health that follows.
There is so much more to diet and balance (and these food items) than what I have presented here. I hope this post inspires you to do some research of your own, and I would love it if you would let me know what you find.
- Ahuja, P. (2009) “Health benefits of nutmeg” on Complete Wellbeing Publishing Private Limited [online]. Accessed via http://completewellbeing.com/article/a-nutty-affair/ on 4 February 2012.
- Purdy, K. (2010) “What Caffeine Does to Your Brain” on lifehacker [online]. Accessed via http://lifehacker.com/5585217/what-caffeine-actually-does-to-your-brain on 27 July 2010.
- Veracity, D. (2005) “The hidden dangers of caffeine: How coffee causes exhaustion, fatigue and addiction” on NaturalNews.com [online]. Accessed via http://www.naturalnews.com/012352.html on 3 February 2012.
- Harvard University (2006) “Coffee Health Benefits : Coffee may protect against disease” on Harvard Health Publications [online]. Accessed via http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/coffee_health_benefits on 4 February 2012.
- http://www.nutrition-and-you.com (2009-2011) “Black pepper nutrition facts” on http://www.nutrition-and-you.com [online]. Accessed via http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/black_pepper.html on 3 February 2012.
- Coconut-Oil-Central.com (2007-2012) “Coconut Oil Myths: Legitimate Misconceptions or Coordinated Lies?” on Coconut Oil Central [online]. Accessed via http://www.coconut-oil-central.com/coconut-oil-myths.html on 4 February 2012.
- Coconut Research Center (2004) “Coconut” on Coconut Research Center [online]. Accessed via http://www.coconutresearchcenter.org/ on 4 February 2012.
- Enig, M. & Fallon, S. (2002) “The Truth About Saturated Fat (3 parts)” on Dr Joseph Mercola [online]. Accessed via http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2002/08/17/saturated-fat1.aspx on 4 February 2012.
- O’Meara, C. (2008) “Cholesterol Scam Report”, downloaded from Changing Habits [online]. Accessed via http://changinghabits.com.au/_webapp_952448/Free_Cholesterol_Report on 19 January 2012.
- Silverman, J. (2011) “How can nicotine be good for me?” on Discovery Communications [online]. Accessed via http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/drugs-alcohol/nicotine-health-benefits.htm on 5 July 2011.
- Drugs.com (2000-2012) “Nicotine Side Effects” on Drugs.com [online]. Accessed via http://www.drugs.com/sfx/nicotine-side-effects.html on 4 February 2012.
Addendum of 22 August 2012: This recent article from Psychology Today adds